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Atheists Are Murderous, Perverted Beasts!

The apparent limitless evil of atheists

Jacob de Backer (detail from The Last Judgment)

It is often argued that the root of morality lies in religious precepts (see my earlier Psychology Today article on the tenuous nature of the religion-morality link). If so, atheists by virtue of their non-belief are deemed more likely to be immoral. Several years ago, I wrote a Psychology Today article in which I discussed a 2006 study that had documented the distrust that the American populace feels toward atheists. Have things changed over the past eight years or so? In a 2014 paper published in PLoS One, Will M. Gervais explored the likelihood that a wide range of truly reprehensible, immoral, and illegal acts might be construed as more representative of atheists as compared to other groups defined by their religious heritage (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism), race (Asian, Black, Hispanic, Native American, White), or sexual orientation (gay). Gervais utilized the classic conjunction fallacy (Tversky & Kahneman, 1983) to elicit the key dependent measure. First a brief tutorial on this decision making bias: If I were to offer you a description of an individual and then ask you which of the following two options is more probable: a) the person is an accountant; b) the person is an accountant and a soccer fan. Option A is axiomatically more probable albeit many people succumb to the conjunction fallacy by assuming that Option B is more representative of such an individual and hence more probable.

Gervais used this paradigm to describe an individual committing horrible acts (serial murders, consensual incest, necrobestiality) and then asked participants to gauge whether the individual were more likely to be: a) a teacher; or b) a teacher and a [fill-in the identifier]. The goal was to see whether participants would be more likely to succumb to the conjunction fallacy when the identifier was “does not believe in God” as compared to the various other identifiers based on religion, race, or sexual orientation.

Without getting into all of the statistical and methodological details, here is the key finding (across several experiments): The likelihood of participants succumbing to the conjunction fallacy was astonishingly higher when option B contained the atheist descriptor. In other words, people construe a portrayal of an individual committing heinous acts or transgressing moral precepts as much more representative of atheists as compared to numerous other groups. Incredibly, atheist participants were also more likely to ascribe such immoral if not illegal acts to atheists! In light of these findings, it is perhaps not too surprising that so few American politicians are ever willing to publicly admit their non-belief in a deity.

I cover this exact study in THE SAAD TRUTH_19 on my YouTube channel.

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